The return of Jürgen Flimm’s 2004 production of Salome to the Met was an occasion to celebrate two debuts: Patricia Racette taking on the title role at the Met for the first time stepping in for Catherine Naglestad, and the young conductor Johannes Debus leading the Met Orchestra in a straightforward but insightful reading of one of Strauss’s masterpieces.
Conductor Johannes Debus took a deliberate pace and kept the volume under control so that the singers were clearly heard. While one might have wished for a more romantic and sweeping Viennese waltz in place of his precise and understated reading, he presented the score as one unified movement. Numerous entries and transitions were handled with expert assuredness and continuity; one was never conscious of the pace and mood of the music making major shifts. His achievement was most notable in leading up to Salome’s final minutes as she descends into madness with her dialogue with Jochannan’s head. The surge of the entire orchestra as Salome sings “Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan. Ich habe ihn geküßt, deinen Mund”, before being murdered by Herod’s soldier, came as a cathartic release as an unbearable amount of tension was built with the slow clarinet playing Salome’s theme.
Patricia Racette made no pretense of portraying Salome as a spoiled teenager experiencing sexual awakening – this Salome is a mature woman who knows how to get what she wants. Her early scene with the prophet Jochanaan did not convey the anxiety of a young girl trying to seduce an older man who is unfazed by her charm. Her despair upon the prophet’s final rejection was not apparent. Despite a wide vibrato that kept creeping into her high notes, Racette used her lyrical voice to good effect to sing the demanding role with good German diction. Her stamina was astounding and she did not seem out of breath after the dance of seven veils. The final scene of the opera, in front stage talking to and finally kissing the severed head, brought out her best singing of the evening, as her tireless voice rode above the surging orchestra to a thrilling finale. It was, at the end of the evening, a compelling and noteworthy performance.
Kang Wang, with a beautiful and clear tenor, made a successful house debut as Narraboth, a young captain in love with Salome. Another debutant, bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee as the First Soldier impressed both with his expressive voice and intelligent acting. Kudos to Richard Bernstein as the Second Soldier, reprising the role he sang in the last revival in 2008.
Many of us who arrived at the Met with some trepidation as to how Racette would fare as Salome were pleasantly surprised at her courageous performance, both vocally and acting. Many recent Salome productions require the heroine to bare it all at the end of the dance, and Racette obliged with several seconds of standing naked from the waist up, followed by a quick second of full frontal nudity.
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